The History of Project Management: Change Through the 1950s

Project Management Emerges During America’s Darkest Economy

Image provided by Southern Historical Collection via Flickr

In the late 1800s, when Taylor and Gantt perfected their principles of labor management and workplace productivity, managers commonly assumed that the number of potential workers was infinite. Efficiency at factories and mills meant keeping up with routine demand and shaving pennies from production costs.

The Great Depression and World War II changed the realities of project scheduling and labor staffing.

Throughout the early 20th Century, Gantt’s principles of an empowered, effective work force infected industry. Navy shipbuilders used Gantt charts to visualize the process of crafting new vessels. The First World War led to the spread of new ideas around logistics and supply. However, business scholars cite the Works Progress Administration as the first major shift that allowed American employers to think about work as a series of projects instead of a regular process.

Until the Great Depression, most Americans signed on with an employer with whom they assumed they would work for the rest of their lives. With many American companies folding and throwing millions of workers onto unemployment lines, the Works Progress Administration was formed to put Americans back to work. Assuming long-term recovery and the temporary need for jobs, the WPA spent money on major projects, like the Hoover Dam and LaGuardia Airport. The WPA also developed numerous small projects, including schools, libraries, and stadiums. Each project required government oversight and a pool of temporary workers, an ideal situation for tools like Gantt Charts.

Wartime Constraints Boost Popularity of Project Management

Many of the first project management professionals helped launch their profession during this era, even though most workers believed that they would eventually return to the old ways of doing things. By the time the United States entered World War II, many of America’s most skilled laborers were fighting overseas or applying their skills to the war effort. While back to boom times, companies still relied on the benefits of project management to get through what they considered a temporary reliance on young adults and women in the workplace.

At the end of the war, companies and government agencies retained what they had learned from this industrial crisis and helped change the way that Americans work. By focusing on projects instead of on long-term processes, companies found that they could become more competitive with growing overseas challengers. Government contractors used project management principles to manage teams more effectively within the constraints of agency reporting. Most importantly, project management became a profession in its own right, sparking a new wave of research and innovation…

This post is part of the series: The History of Project Management

Five key periods in the evolution of project management practices and principles.
  1. The History of Project Management: Frederick Taylor and 19th Century Peak Performance
  2. The History of Project Management: Gantt and the Early 20th Century
  3. The History of Project Management: Change Through the 1950s
  4. The History of Project Management: Late 20th Century Process and Improvements
  5. The History of Project Management: Into the 21st Century